Love for All Suits Us to a “T”
a sermon based on Acts 8:26-40
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 3, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott
One Communion Sunday a new minister decided to talk and ask questions about Communion during the children’s message. He said “The Bible talks of Holy Communion being a ‘joyful feast’. Then he asked, “What does that mean?” When no one replied he said “Well, ‘joyful’ means happy, right? And a feast is a meal. So a ‘joyful feast’ is a happy meal. Can you tell me what makes a happy meal?” One of the children excitedly said “Oh, oh I know, I know. Hamburger and fries and a free toy!”
Today we celebrate Communion a joyful . . . happy . . . meal here because all are invited and welcomed to it, which is also symbolic of this community, as it is of the historic Jesus’ Movement and early church. And today’s Bible lesson can be heard to profoundly symbolize the wide-open inclusiveness of Jesus’ Way.
That lesson is – UNsurprisingly– often referred as “The Story of the Ethiopian Eunuch.” Although it is not a story often preached about in church it actually does come up in the Lectionary . . .and I also briefly mentioned it way back in January of 2014.
When we consider this story it is okay to think there really was an Ethiopian Eunuch who became an early Christian convert, but it is also okay to consider it as a fictionalized parable. Either way the story was recorded to teach as Jesus taught, that there are no boundaries to who may join His Way.
And this is not the only Ethiopian Eunuch who gets saved in the Bible. In the Old Testament God tells Jeremiah that an Ethiopian Eunuch, Ebed-Melech, is to be saved when the Temple falls to Babylon. (Jer 39:15–18). It’s no coincidence that when our lesson was written the temple had also recently fallen– this time to Rome– and like Jeremiah a religious leader, Phillip hears God sending him to save an Ethiopian Eunuch. Today’s lesson can be heard in a sense as a re-enactment of the salvation of a eunuch with the final fall of temple. This is amazing because Old Testament laws prohibit eunuchs from worshiping in community and giving offerings.
Under Biblical purity laws eunuchs could not be Jews. 1 Eunuchs under Torah were shunned from worship, yet in Jeremiah and in Acts God–GOD!– claims them for salvation just as they are.
Biblical authors and audiences back then would have been familiar with the non-Jewish Ancient Near East role of a royal eunuch. Whether real or fictional the Ethiopian Eunuch would have been considered a neutered male and in the role of eunuch would have acted non-male like.
The eunuch probably did not have a say in his neutering but by the start of the story in Acts he is necessarily self-identifying as a eunuch–otherwise no one would know of his eunuch-ness. His NOT acting culturally “manlike” is how Phillip, the author and readers know he’s a eunuch. That is read in, implied, by his royal station and identification as a eunuch.
That’s a bit of a long-winded way to say the Ethiopian Eunuch in modern parlance did not gender identify as a man, but rather lived into and accepted a non-man role in his culture. And his eunuch-ness is used by the author of Acts to illustrate that all barriers to joining the early church were down– all of them.
Modern ideas on gender identification, as I understand them, assert that human gender identify does not necessarily comport with the XX and XY chromosomes most humans are given at birth. Rather regardless of chromosome make-up gender identification has come to mean the gender identity a person’s brain tells them they are. Most of us born with XY chromosomes eventually gender identify as men in the culture, but not all of us do. Most of us born with XX chromosomes gender eventually identify as women in the culture, but not all of us do. Those are facts.
Our brains tell us – we do not choose, and our chromosome line-ups alone do not dictate– what all our gender identity is. This can be mind-bending to consider because we are raised thinking our chromosomes always dictate the gender roles we identify with, but that’s not true. Sadly western culture has long thought it was true and so those identifying outside their gender role have been treated differently.
Like, in the time Acts was written, to be a eunuch meant to be an outlier, because eunuchs did not conform to their apparent birth gender. In the context of our lesson the Ethiopian Eunuch was born male and then was intentionally neutered to alter his expected heterosexual maleness in order to make him unable to express or behave like a heterosexual male. This alteration allowed him to be a part of the queen’s court without worry about intimate relationship or sexual assault.
The alteration of male workers around royal women was a Gentile tradition in the ancient world. It was also a tradition in the ancient world to demean, condescend, mock, discriminate and/or ostracize eunuchs. 2 Having a non-male gender identification a eunuch no longer fit the norms expected of his birth gender, and so became the subject of discrimination, including discriminatory laws.
The Bible has such laws. Those ancient laws label eunuchs as impure. Deuteronomy (23:1) provides eunuchs “shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Leviticus(21) prohibits eunuchs from being priests and from even approaching God to make an offering. The reason for these laws is that eunuchs were considered to be impure, they differed from ancient Jewish cultural expectations of those born males.
You might think those Old Testament laws and discrimination are out-of-date and no one is giving heed to such thoughts in our day and age, but actually eunuchs can be heard to being like those in our communities we know as Transgender.
And Transgender people are very much belittled and bullied and discriminated in our culture and churches, and laws.
If you have heard me or others refer to LBGT the “T” in that stands for Transgender, although L and G and B have to do with sexual orientation T does not. Transgender is about an individual’s gender identity, not sexual desires. The American Psychological Association defines “Transgender” as:
an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else; gender expression refers to the way a person communicates gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics. “Trans” is sometimes used as shorthand for “transgender”. . . 3
In the context of our Bible lesson we can hear that the Ethiopian Eunuch’s “identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex . . . assigned at birth.” The Ethiopian Eunuch is expressing a non-male identity, gender and behavior.
In our story he is reading from Hebrew Scripture, Isaiah, when he is stopped by Phillip. Given the Biblical laws against eunuchs he has reason to ask Phillip what might prevent his being baptized into the then Jewish sect of Jesus Followers. Phillip’s unhesitatingly baptizing him answers the question – NOTHING! Nothing is to prevent it. And, see, the book of Isaiah prophesies that eunuchs would be accepted one day:
do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isa 56:3-5 NRS)
Our reading today can be heard as a fulfillment of that prophesy. How cool is that? A eunuch, who is very much like what we’d call Transgender is welcomed into the church. We can hear that as a lesson that nothing should prevent Transgender folk from being welcomed in to church today. Nothing.
In the case of this eunuch, gender identity was created by an unnatural neutering, which is rare in our culture. But gender identity that does not conform to gender assigned at birth also occurs naturally as a part of God’s goodly creation. How? Well,
Many health experts believe that being transgender isn’t caused by any one thing. What makes a person comfortable or uncomfortable with his or her anatomy is unclear, but they believe it’s the result of a complex mixture of biology, psychology, and environmental factors — and not simply a matter of choice.” 4
The Ethiopian Eunuch’s non-conformity with XY chromosome expectations got him his job with the queen so the “trans” nature of a eunuch was prized in that narrow capacity–in a Gentile culture, Ethiopia.
But as I said, the trans nature of a eunuch was also the source of discrimination and loathing in parts of both ancient Gentile and Jewish cultures. However in the Book of Acts the Ethiopian Eunuch is pointedly not discriminated against or loathed. He is treated respectfully and equally–just like the prophesy in the Book of Isaiah said he would be.
I have long liked the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch it is packed with power and meaning and instruction– and soaked with Love! A person whose gender identity is culturally unaccepted, and condemned in part of the Bible is sought out and welcomed at the command of God, by the early Church leaders!
And notably it’s the first “conversion” in a line of them in Acts 8, 9 and 10. Before Paul is baptized, before Cornelius the Roman Centurion is converted to the faith, God first sends Phillip to the Ethiopian Eunuch to bring him into the fold of the post-Easter church– making it clear no one is prevented from being baptized by cultural standards of purity.
God causes Phillip to bring a eunuch into the fold despite Old Testament texts that can be read to literally require eunuch to be shut out of the faith community. The very same type of texts still used today to shun LGBTQ from church communities and bully them. But see, those who would shun and bully LGBTQ are choosing to ignore or read away parts of the Bible that pretty clearly instruct that those who don’t conform to purity laws are sought out by God to be included equally into Jesus’ community. Throughout the New Testament we can hear Jesus putting aside purity laws to tend to all manner of unclean people. 5 He touches the untouchables. He tends to the unclean.
Jesus always places compassion above outward signs of supposed impurity, so much so, he asserts in Mark (7:15) that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Marcus Borg argued that this is echoed in Matthew when Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in heart.” “True purity . . .,” Borg points out, “is a matter not of external boundaries but of the heart. 6
“Eunuchs were [considered] sexually defective and so at the bottom the purity system.” 7 So our reading today is a radical story which by no stretch of the imagination has God sending no less than an Apostle out to affirmatively find, run along side, teach, baptize and bring into Christ’s community as an equal someone whom Bible purity laws discriminate against. A Godly made, goodly Transgender like neighbors is welcomed and honored and loved.
Today’s Lectionary text strongly evidences that the early church rejected out-of-hand the unloving “reject such folks” purity model. It instead embraced Jesus compassion rules, His “love always wins” model. It’s right there in black and white in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Before Paul, a loathed persecutor of the faith, is converted in Acts 9, before Cornelius, an enemy Roman soldier, is converted in Acts 10, the Ethiopian Eunuch, a shunned Transgender-like person is converted in Acts 8. That’s one of the best kept secrets in the Bible.
Jesus brought everyone into his fold and taught his followers to do that. This story shows His early followers coming through and doing that, daring to knock down all barriers to community and love.
Just after the Ethiopian Eunuch and Paul and Cornelius are converted, Peter wrestles with some sort of purported rule about Jews visiting Gentiles. As Peter wrestled, God issued one of my all time favorite Divine edicts. God commanded that we “should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Note that there’s no wriggle room in that command. It is literally applicable to anyone a Christian might want to call profane or unclean. The command is we should not do it. And when Christians do it, we violate God’s command.
Here is the good news, the often hidden news that’s in the text we’ve considered this morning: The early church heard and recorded God’s call for the Biblical ban of eunuchs, of trans-like folk, to be ignored, to be superceded by Christ’s teachings and supreme command to love our neighbors. The early church heard and recorded God’s call for eunuchs, for trans-like folk, to be sought out, baptized, loved and welcomed into the community. The early church heard and recorded God’s command to not call anyone profane or unclean. “Anyone” includes, of course, the entire spectrum of LGBTQ. And in the context of Acts 8 to 10 that command expressly applies to all of our Trans neighbors.
Not every church or pastor is going to tell you this stuff, many churches will not even read aloud and preach on today’s lesson. In fact, no doubt this week some Christians will wrongly – and quite unlovingly– label our Transgender brothers, sisters and neighbors as Biblically impure or profane. The early church did not agree with such labels or shunning or mistreatment. It is not loving of neighbor. It does not do to others as we’d want done to us. Nor does it comply with God’s crystal clear command to not call anyone profane or unclean!
The early church – took its cue from Jesus and God– and knocked down hurdles to love by including and providing compassion to a eunuch someone we could fairly call Transgender like. The early church treated a Transgender like image of God as a goodly Godly part of creation, as welcomed and loved by Jesus and His community.
Here at First Congregational UCC we take our cue from Jesus; God; the Bible and the early church, and we consider the many beautiful human images of God as equals, including of course our goodly Godly made Transgender brothers and sisters and neighbors. Our answer to the Ethiopian Eunuch’s question what’s to prevent folks like him from being baptized is the same as God, Phillip and the early church’s answer . . .Absolutely nothing.
1 Borg, Marcus, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 67 footnote 41.
2 See, e.g. Malik, Faris, Thesis: Eunuchs are Gay Men at ,http://www.well.com/user/aquarius/thesis.htm; Eunuchs, Homosexuals, Gays and Jesus, http://www.hiddenmeanings.com/gaysJesus2.htm
3 American Psychological Association website definition found at: http://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/transgender.aspx
4 Kidshealth.org http://kidshealth.org/parent/positive/talk/transgender.html#
5 Borg at 46-68
6. Ibid at 54
7. Ibid at 58
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